Coming to Take You Away
It's time to get on the bus. Not just any bus, however. This one is Barry Fey's Rock 'n' Roll Tour of Denver bus, sponsored by the Colorado Historical Society in conjunction with its current picture-perfect '60s-'70s exhibit. In a way, the tour of former venues where Fey played out his career as a concert promoter is a sad litany: The venerated if short-lived Family Dog is now a strip joint, for instance, and the Rainbow Music Hall houses a Walgreen's. But with Fey in the house, you just gotta believe--though it helps to be old enough to remember some things yourself.
Our first stop on an abbreviated advance version of the tours, which begin June 5, is P.T.'s, once the Family Dog, a hippie-haven cousin of San Francisco's famed Avalon Ballroom. Blinking in the sudden darkness, Fey drinks it all in: the stale cigarette-smoke smell, the vending machines, the pudding-wrestling fliers and voluminously stacked bleached-blond bartender. "The dancing doesn't start until after 11," he says. "I guess we can vote on staying later..." Dressed in shorts that don't hide his gut and a crisp, white Keith Richards T-shirt ("Keith is the coolest guy in our business"), Fey sits down at the bar to schmooze. He always loves having an audience, but maybe there's no place he loves it more than right here, where it all started. Haloed in the smoky, dark room by rows of pink lightbulbs, he muses, "I'm not a hokey person. I do get nostalgic. I could stay here all day."
Fey tells how he first caught on to the hippie thing. In 1967 he took a local band, the 8th Penny Matter, to San Francisco, where he saw the psychedelic, Haight-Ashbury scene in all its glory, "bought a pair of Jesus sandals" and brought home a Pandora's box of bright ideas. "I said to myself: How can I bring this back to Denver?" he remembers. Like his brother in business, Bill Graham, he saw there was money to be made.
In the present, Fey just wants to paint the right picture. "Just imagine," he says with an expansive gesture. "Jim Morrison, right here. Marty Balin of the Jefferson Airplane, who was the biggest ass, was right here. He got mad at someone and kicked over an amp. Picture Janis--"Down on Me." Every guy here said, 'I'd like to sleep with Janis,' but I saw her up close and I said, 'Why?' She was drinking from the bottle of Southern Comfort, all that, but when she sang, it was heaven."
Fey describes the stage when Blue Cheer played there with Big Brother and the Holding Company on opening night, September 8, 1967. "It was lined with Marshall amps," he says. "When they started to play, my legs started to shake and my heart started to pound. That was rock and roll."
He has no black-and-white mementos to show, no electrified photos of the concerts there, no tangible evidence left behind by the Doors, the Buffalo Springfield, Captain Beefheart or the Byrds. "Who knew?" he says. "All of this was new--it just started happening. I was just in the right place at the right time. That should go on my tombstone--if I ever die."
Back on the bus, but not without a parting word. "There's less nudity here now than there used to be in the old days," Fey says, fondly. Then it's on to the Mammoth Events Center, known as Mammoth Gardens when Fey and rich-kid entrepreneur Stewart Green opened a concert hall there in April 1970. Mammoth hasn't changed at all. Eternally funky, it's still distinguished mainly by an expansive wooden dance floor cordoned off on either side by makeshift balconies. It's a great, musty echo chamber beleaguered by bad sound but redeemed by that dynamite floor.
It's not his favorite place, you can tell, but it was the site of the best show Fey ever saw: The Who, June 9, 1970. They played all of Tommy, he remembers, then more, ending the show with "Summertime Blues."
"It was the first time there was no 'more, more,'" Fey recalls. "Everyone just picked up and left. They'd seen all they could've seen, and the people were worn out, and they just left." So do we.
We head downtown for a swing by Ebbets Field. Fey tells how he hooked up with promoter Chuck Morris to buy Marvelous Marv's, a sunken cave of a room beneath Brooks Towers that seated fewer than 250 people. Morris, an East Coast boy, renamed the club Ebbets Field, ushering in an age of shows that could never happen now--bands such as Little Feat, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Emmylou Harris & the Hot Band playing scorching live sets within a few yards of every person there. Headed toward I-25, we pass through the Platte Valley. "There's Barry's Pepsi Center," Fey says. "It might as well be."
Today's last stop is the Monaco and Evans Walgreen's store, nee Rainbow Music Hall. Legendary for being roomy and cozy at the same time with a killer sound system and an endless stream of high-quality acts coming and going almost daily, the Rainbow opened in 1979. Fey, looking dazed, leads the small group into the sick fluorescent light of Walgreen's, pointing out where the box office, entrance and lobby once were. In the middle of the defunct lobby, there's a cluster of Graduation Barbie dolls. "Here, next to the weed-killer, is where the mixing board was," Fey says. "The stage was along the back wall." He takes the group all the way back to a far corner by the pharmacy waiting room. "This is the place where drugs were sold," he says. And, yes, they still are.
Fey's magical musical tour of Denver is nearly over. There will be no great finale, no last encore. He wanders back to the front of the store, looking drawn, muttering that you just can't really imagine what it used to look like. He stops, lingers at the ice-cream case, glides by a display of Jelly Tubs, tells a few more stories. So some of them are the same old stories, but does it matter? "I've been accused many times of living in the past," he says, "but so what?"
Out the door, Fey shakes some hands and has his picture taken. Then he clambers into his sport utility vehicle and heads home.
Rock 'n' Roll Tour of Denver with Barry Fey, 9 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Friday, June 5, June 26, July 24 or August 7, Colorado History Museum, 1300 Broadway, $15-$25, 830-
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